What you need to know about ice-cream

Creamy, premium or low-fat: which vanilla ice-cream suits your taste?

What’s your frozen favourite?

Australians love their ice-cream. Annual consumption is estimated at 18 litres per head, putting Aussies third behind New Zealand and the US. While ice-cream comes in an amazing array of varieties, what truly raises the creamy qualities of the best above the rest is how the ingredients listed on the tub are blended together and in what ratio.

Ice-cream styles range from premium to low fat and are available in generic and leading brand names, but whether they’re worth buying depends on flavour, texture, and overall taste – as well as what your favourite style is.

Low-fat formulations

In response to consumer health concerns, more and more manufacturers are making low-fat ice-cream formulations, some marketed as low- or reduced-fat or “light”. Bear in mind that "reduced fat" doesn't always mean low in fat. By law, low-fat products cannot contain more than 3% fat, whereas reduced-fat products only need to have at least 25% less fat than their full-fat equivalent. Always check the nutritional panel on the tub.

As you might expect from the name, the creamier the ice-cream, the more people seem to prefer it. Low-fat ice-creams may also lack flavour, texture and overall taste, with some in this category being more likely to be described as “icy” and less likely to be judged as “creamy” or “smooth”.

What to look for

Each ingredient used to make ice-cream plays a role in providing flavour, consistency and texture.

  • Milk fat can be added as cream, butter or pure milk fat, and gives ice-cream its characteristic smoothness and creaminess. Generally, the higher the milk fat content, the richer the ice-cream.
  • Non-fat milk solids include ingredients such as the solids of skim milk, protein, milk sugar (lactose) and mineral matter. They give body to the ice-cream and help develop smoothness. They do very little to enhance flavour, but work to increase viscosity and resistance to melting as well as lowering the freezing point. It’s important that ice-cream not have too many non-fat milk solids, as these cause an icy texture due to the formation of lactose crystals. 
  • Sweetening agents enhance the flavour of ice-cream; common sweeteners are cane sugar (sucrose) and glucose syrups. Sugar lowers the freezing point of the ice-cream mixture, resulting in slower freezing and so requiring a lower temperature for proper handling.
  • Stabilisers such as vegetable gums increase the viscosity of ice-cream by controlling the size and growth of ice crystals to give a uniform and smooth consistency. Common stabilisers used include vegetable gums such as carrageenan (407); processed eucheuma seaweed (407a); sodium alginate (401); locust bean gum (410); guar gum (412) and xanthan gum (415), as well as powdered cellulose (460) and sodium carboxymethylcellulose (466). Gelatine can also be used.
  • Emulsifiers improve the whipping qualities of the mix by ensuring the milk fat remains evenly distributed, keeping it creamy. Commonly used emulsifiers include mono- and di-glycerides of fatty acids (471), citric and fatty acid esters of glycerol (472c), polysorbate 80 (433) and propylene glycerol esters of fatty acids (477). 
  • Air (overrun) gives ice-cream its desired texture. Without incorporating air, the ice-cream mix would freeze as a solid mass. During the freezing process, the overrun increases its volume.
  • Colourings make ice-cream attractive to the eye and correspond to the associated flavour. These can include, for example, the natural colouring annatto (160b), Caramel I (150a) and Caramel IV (150d).
  • Flavourings Manufacturers don’t need to specify the names of the flavourings used in their ice-creams or whether or not they’re natural. Natural vanilla extract is expensive, so less expensive ice-creams tend to use artificial flavours.

Jargon buster

  • Regular ice-cream is defined by the Food Standards Code as a sweet frozen food made from cream and/or milk products that must contain no less than 10% milk fat and 168g/L of food solids.
  • Premium ice-cream There is no set requirement for these types. ''Premium'' is purely a marketing term. Some products don’t have ''premium'' on the label, but carry a premium price tag.
  • Reduced-fat ice-cream should contain about 25% less fat than its full-fat equivalent - this is about 7% fat for ice-cream.
  • Low-fat ice-cream must contain no more than 3% fat. 
  • Fat-free percentage claims are restricted by the industry Code of Practice to products that contain no more than 3% fat – i.e. 97%, 98% or 99% fat free.
  • Ice confection is a term used for a product that doesn’t meet the definition of ice-cream. 
  • Soy-based ice confection is a product in which milk solids are replaced with soy protein.

Shopping and storage tips

  • The ideal storage temperature for ice-cream is -25°C; it should never be stored any warmer than -18°C. Avoid heat shock (large, or long periods of, temperature fluctuations), as this will cause the formation of large ice crystals which give the ice-cream that undesirable icy or sandy texture.  To avoid heat shock you can also practise the following:
  • Take a cooler or insulated bag to the supermarket so the ice-cream (as well as any other frozen or refrigerated foods) can stay cool when you're travelling home.
  • Get the ice-cream last, and try to get a tub that's further down in the freezer (if it's a chest freezer), or towards the back (if it's in a stand-up freezer).
  • Don't choose a product with ice crystals around the container. This is a sign that its undergone temperature changes and so might have a gritty/icy texture.
  • Put the ice-cream in the freezer as soon as you get home and don't leave it out on the kitchen bench for too long after using it.

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